20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Eric Lomax, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Railway Man’ by Eric Lomax

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 322 pages; 2014.

We all know famous first lines from books, but how many can quote the last line? It was the ending of this book — and specifically the final sentence — that really got me. It packed such a powerful punch and rounded off all that had gone before with such aplomb and grace and wisdom that it made me cry.

Scottish-born Eric Lomax, the author of this extraordinary autobiography, The Railway Man, was a young officer with the Royal Corps of Signals when he was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army during the fall of Singapore in February 1942.

He was just one of thousands of POWs forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway under brutal, inhumane conditions.

The book charts Lomax’s life from his quiet childhood in Edinburgh to his time in the British Army during the Second World War. It looks at what happened to him when the war ended and finishes with him meeting  the Japanese soldier who tortured him 50 years earlier.

The title comes from Lomax’s love of trains and all things train related, an obsession he discovered as a young boy.

I was drawn to the railways so much that they have been a backdrop to almost every turning-point in my life, and have led me into unhappiness and torment, as well as some of the only real contentment I have ever known.

Many of you may know the story already from the 2013 film adaptation starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. I haven’t seen the film, so am not sure how faithful it is to Lomax’s book (Lomax died in 2012, so never got to see the film).

Admittedly it’s written in a fairly dry, reserved style and follows the tropes of traditional autobiography. The prose is clear, succinct and free of sentiment.

The main section, which is about life as a POW, includes descriptions of horrific acts by Japanese soldiers against the prisoners, Lomax included, but they are not gratuitous: they are central to the story. (Lomax had both his arms broken in a terrible beating; in another instance he was water-boarded. He was so desperate to escape his torturers, he threw himself down the stairs so that he could be taken to the hospital in Changi, where conditions weren’t much better but at least he’d “enjoy” a slight reprieve.)

The Railway Man really comes into its own after the war is over, when Lomax returns home to try to pick up his life where he left off, only to discover that he’s not the person he thought he was.

I was often inward-looking, a victim of a strange passivity that made me absorb experiences like blotting paper but which made it difficult for me to give; it made me appear slow, yet I was anything but lazy. I felt sometimes like a guest in my own house. When confrontation came, I would resist with immense stubborn energy, revenging myself on the Kempeitai [the military police of the Japanese Imperial Army] and the guards in every encounter. Although I could not have admitted it, I was still fighting the war in all those years of peace.

When he accidentally discovers his torturer is still alive, he dreams of revenge. But when the opportunity to meet him face to face arises, Lomax realises that he has the capacity to forgive — and it is this extraordinary meeting, between two men, both in their 80s, that gives this book its remarkable redemptive power. It’s an astonishing read.

Fans of Richard Flanagan’s Booker-award-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North will find much to like here.

In 1996, The Railway Man won both the NCR Book Award for Non-Fiction and the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography.

This is my 1st book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 20th book for #TBR40. I bought this copy a couple of years ago from Harbour Books, a lovely independent bookshop in Whitstable, on the Kent coast, which had a lot of old Vintage stock going cheaply. The price tag on the front of this edition shows I paid £2.99 for it instead of the £5.99RRP. 

5 thoughts on “‘The Railway Man’ by Eric Lomax”

  1. I grew up immersed in WWII and especially the war in the Pacific, I guess there were thousands of young men who had experiences to write and that was reflected in the paperbacks my father collected and which were all around me. I’m not happy that Richard Flanagan chose to insert himself into a space which has more than enough writing by people who were there, but that’s another story. Your description of the author unable to stop fighting the war reminds me of one of my favourite authors, JG Ballard who could not stop seeing the atom bomb dropping “over the horizon” (he was in China), which marked his release from years of detention.


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